Hello and welcome to all of you in Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse.
Thank you for taking a moment to look at this email. I want to keep everyone in touch with what’s going on in the constituency and what it might mean for you.
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Change of day
So as I can be as up to date as possible, the day for distribution has moved from every other Monday to every other Wednesday from today onwards.
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Changes at Westminster
Ian Blackford MP has announced a reshuffle of SNP MPs including changes to his front bench team.
The SNP Westminster Leader said the reshuffle would draw on new talent and ensure the SNP has the best possible team in Westminster as Scotland faces the challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit.
Ian Blackford MP welcomed four new additions to his front bench;
Patricia Gibson MP as Shadow Spokesperson for Housing, Communities and Local Government
Angela Crawley MP as Shadow Spokesperson for the Attorney General
Richard Thomson MP as Shadow Spokesperson for Northern Ireland
Stephen Flynn MP as Shadow Spokesperson for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Commenting, Ian Blackford MP said: "We have a wealth of talent and experience and this reshuffle of SNP MPs ensures we are in the best possible position to hold the UK government to account during this global pandemic and the aftermath of Brexit, to support colleagues ahead of the Scottish elections, and to deliver independence.
"Team working and cooperation are key to ensure results and this reshuffle will give us a strong team to take us forward. We have an incredibly hard-working group of MPs - I thank them all for their commitment and congratulate those in new positions.
"Neil Gray MP will coordinate our Inclusion and Wellbeing team before he steps down as a MP and seeks election to the Scottish Parliament. I thank him for all his work and wish him the very best.
"We are at a crucial time in politics. Never before have we faced a challenge as great as the global pandemic, and Scotland is acutely feeling the ramifications of leaving the European Union. With the Scottish elections on the horizon and independence in touching distance, our new team is ready to work hard for Scotland."
Virtual Burns Night
I can’t help but wonder what our famous national Bard would have made of a virtual Burns Night. He’d probably have joined in, I imagine! He was always up for a great gig.
Well, must needs and Friday 5 February at 7pm, Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse SNP friends and colleagues will be joining together to celebrate the life and works of Rabbie Burns, all online so full social distancing will in place. And of course you can join in from wherever you happen to be.
Apart, naturally, from wanting to see me, other guests include Angela Crawley MP, Neil Gray MP, John Ross, leader of South Lanarkshire Council and Cllr Josh Wilson but there will be many more.
The night will be hosted by Angela Crawley MP and includes a host of guest speakers. There will also be a special video message from Janey Godley for our guests to enjoy.
We all invite you warmly to join us. Tickets are £10 and are available from tinyurl.com/1qyjf1au
Local Tory MSPs have been urged to back a U-turn on Tory plans to cut Universal Credit in the middle of an economic crisis - after new figures revealed that Boris Johnson’s plan to remove the £20 per week uplift in April would hit 29,478 people in South Lanarkshire.
Latest statistics show that in November 2020 there were 29,478 people claiming Universal Credit in South Lanarkshire in November. If all these people remain on Universal Credit until April, then they will be affected by the removal of the £20 uplift.
The SNP has repeatedly called on the Westminster Tory government to maintain the £20 boost to Universal Credit and extend it to legacy benefits - yet all six Scottish Tory MPs abstained on a vote which would have ensured that.
Anti-poverty think-tank the Resolution Foundation estimates that the cut to Universal Credit by £20 a week could see the incomes of low-income families fall by more than four per cent (4%) and plunge a further 820,000 children into poverty across the UK.
By slashing social security payments by £1000 a year, in the middle of an economic crisis, the Tories could push 29,478 people here in South Lanarkshire further into hardship and poverty.
There must be an immediate U-turn on this, to avoid worsening poverty and inequality across the country during the Covid-19 crisis - and I would urge local MSPs to support this.
Although the SNP government has led the way in tackling poverty, with new benefits like the Scottish Child Payment and a social security system based on dignity and respect, this progress is being severely undermined by Tory cuts.
It is crucial that the £20 uplift to Universal Credit is made permanent and extended to legacy benefits, as part of a wider package to boost incomes after a decade of damaging Tory austerity cuts.
Scotland shouldn't have to wait for Westminster to act to protect the incomes of the most vulnerable in our society. The only way to secure a strong, fair and equal recovery is for Scotland to become an independent country - with the full powers needed to build a fairer society.
Scotland’s Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, has unveiled a draft budget that secures a major cash boost for the NHS, more investment in local public services and further financial support for families.
In Holyrood on Thursday 28 January, the SNP Government announced record funding of over £16 billion for Scotland’s health services, with a further £869 million to directly support the fight against the pandemic. Public sector workers will also be handed a pay rise.
£90 million will be made available to local authorities to freeze Council Tax levels, keeping more money in the pockets of families, while a majority of taxpayers will continue to pay less than they would elsewhere in the UK.
Ms Forbes also announced over £1 billion for the creation of a Green Workforce Academy to help people build skills for the future, £711 million to create more affordable housing, £98 million to improve broadband speeds and mobile coverage and £567 million to support the UK’s most ambitious childcare programme.
During his flying visit north on the same day, what Boris Johnson deemed an ‘essential’ trip - though that is hard to swallow given the Stay at Home message. Our First Minister doesn’t feel it is ‘essential’ for her to make comparable visits.
Predictably, Mr Johnson came to talk down Scotland’s lower levels of Covid-19 and to tell us independence is a distraction. It’s odd that he is always first to introduce our right to choose as well as first to condemn and reject it.
SNP MSP Tom Arthur said that the budget “shows that where Scotland has the power, the SNP will take a different approach to give Scots the best deal in the UK.
“In unprecedented circumstances, and with one hand tied behind our back, the SNP is using its powers progressively to invest in our schools and our hospitals – while protecting household incomes during these tough times.
“Against the backdrop of added uncertainty caused by Boris Johnson’s Tory Brexit, the SNP Government has offered positive vision and leadership at a crucial moment for Scotland.
“While the Prime Minister has flown north to tell Scotland we couldn’t tackle this pandemic without Westminster’s support, back in the real world the SNP is getting on with the day job – creating a more prosperous equal society for us all.
“The question for voters at May’s election is simple. Who should be in charge of Scotland’s economic recovery from this virus, a government democratically elected by the people who live and work here, or Boris Johnson?”
Scotland's tax bands stay the same, though will increase with inflation.
The majority of taxpayers in Scotland will pay slightly less income tax than the rest of the UK.
The Finance Secretary will freeze the top tax rate of income tax at £150,000 and said that taxes will go down for all Scots compared with this year.
On the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax levied on home purchases, which was lowered to a temporary nil rate last year up to purchases of £250,000 will return to the £145,000 limit on 1 April and increase in tiered levels on more expensive properties.
First time buyer relief remains.
Spending on Scotland's NHS will increase by £800 million over and above the core budget in the coming year.
This means the total budget reaches more than £16 billion, including £869 million to provide specific support for Covid-19 care.
A total of £145.3 million has been allocated to help tackle alcohol and drug issues, fulfilling the First Minister’s pledge of £50 million per year for five years.
Kate Forbes also announced that mental health funding would exceed £1.1 billion to cope with the effects of coronavirus as well as improve services across the country.
Public sector workers earning under £25,000 will get a three per cent pay rise. People on higher wages will receive a 1% increase capped at £800 above £80,000.
Local authorities will be given financial incentives to freeze council tax for the year ahead. Additional funding of £90 million will be made available to Scotland's 32 councils if they choose to keep local rates at the current level.
The Finance Secretary pointed out that freezing council tax would help households suffering financially due to lockdown.
There is to be an extension in business support funds to help cope with the pandemic.
The strategic framework business fund, which provides grants based on restrictions put on businesses, will continue beyond this financial year, provided funding is forthcoming from the UK Government.
Full details of the Budget are here:
Help for home schooling
Almost 6000 digital devices have been distributed by South Lanarkshire Council to help families with home schooling during lockdown.
Already, 5177 Chromebooks and 750 MiFi devices are in homes across the region - allowing pupils to keep up with their studies while schools remain closed.
Head of senior phase education Stewart Nicolson said that "this has been a phenomenal logistical and technical exercise" and the council is now "much better prepared for remote learning" than in March 2020.
On Tuesday, January 19, the education committee heard how Scottish Government funding of £1.46 million has allowed the council to improve digital inclusion across the region.
Priority was given to families in receipt of free school meals that had no digital devices at home and this saw 2200 Chromebooks and 480 MiFi devices distributed in the first stage.
Chromebooks are laptops optimised for browsing the internet and using office-based software such as word processors, spreadsheets and presentations.
MiFi devices are wireless routers which provide access to the internet via WiFi hotspots and the devices supplied by SLC come with a one-year Vodafone contract providing unlimited data.
To widen access, a further 3200 Chromebooks were needed to help families with "extremely limited digital access".
In practice, that means families whose only internet access was through a mobile phone or families with a device split between parents working from home and children at school.
Consideration was also given to pupils with additional support needs and 400 of these Chromebooks have touch screens.
Most of these have already been delivered, but SLC is expecting that remaining devices will be delivered in the next few weeks.
In a bid to support digital inclusion, families were given follow-up technical support through a named contact which has allowed the council to directly link up with targeted vulnerable families regarding set up, connectivity and user access issues.
All requests from families for MiFi devices have been met with over 750 families now able to access the internet.
Mr Nicolson added: "Funding of £1.46 million was made available to the council to support digital inclusion in response to the situation noted during the first lockdown, where some children were unable to access education in a meaningful way due to having either limited or no access to appropriate devices and internet connections.
"This has been a phenomenal logistical and technical exercise to get these devices set up and they have been configured so that not only will they work in the children's home, but they will also be compatible if they want to bring them into school."
Good news for South Lanarkshire taxis
I was delighted to hear that taxi and private hire drivers in South Lanarkshire will have access to three times the amount of Scottish Government support than they did last year.
Eligible drivers will be able to claim a £1,500 grant to cover fixed costs, boosting the support available to them by the Scottish Government.
A total fund of £57 million has been available to taxi and private hire drivers.
I’m pleased that the Scottish SNP Government has been able to increase the funding available to taxi and private hire drivers.
Many of these drivers in the Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse Constituency have gone above and beyond the call of duty by providing transport for key workers and taking people safely to hospital appointments.
This substantial increase in support for them is the recognition they deserve in what has been a tough time for the industry due to the lockdown restrictions.
Many fixed costs have remained for drivers even though business is much reduced. Insurance, general maintenance, licence plate fees and rental fees still have to be paid, so the increase in funding will cover these expensive costs.
I urge SLC to contact firms quickly to ensure they can receive the money as soon as possible.